ex­perts urge new ap­proach in fight against deaths tied to sub­stance abuse

Edmonton Sun - - NEWS - MEGHAN POTKINS — With files from James Wood mpotkins@post­ @mpotkins

CAL­GARY — Peo­ple suf­fer­ing from ad­dic­tion and sub­stance use dis­or­ders are not crim­i­nals, and drug poli­cies will need to change to stem the tide of opioid deaths in Canada.

That was the mes­sage voiced re­peat­edly Tues­day to hun­dreds of pub­lic health work­ers, ad­dic­tion ex­perts and pol­icy-mak­ers gath­ered for a na­tional con­fer­ence on sub­stance use in Cal­gary.

For the sec­ond day in a row, at­ten­dees at the Is­sues of Sub­stance con­fer­ence put on by the Cana­dian Cen­tre on Sub­stance Use and Ad­dic­tion (CCSA) heard ex­perts raise the pos­si­bil­ity of de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing drugs as a pos­si­ble strat­egy to com­bat the epi­demic of opioid deaths across Canada.

“It’s not a crime to have an ad­dic­tion, I think that’s clear and our drug pol­icy should re­flect that ab­so­lutely,” said Dr. Nick Etches, a med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health and the med­i­cal di­rec­tor for pub­lic health in the Cal­gary Zone.

Though Etches de­scribed him­self as an ad­vo­cate for de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion, he stopped short of en­dors­ing the model that’s been im­ple­mented in Por­tu­gal, cit­ing a lack of data. Por­tu­gal has re­moved the ap­pli­ca­tion of crim­i­nal law on per­sonal pos­ses­sion for lim­ited amounts of all drugs, while of­fer­ing more ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial sup­ports — an ap­proach some health ad­vo­cates and politi­cians in­clud­ing fed­eral NDP Leader Jag­meet Singh have sug­gested could help in the re­sponse to the opioid cri­sis.

“I think it’s im­por­tant that we have a care­ful, ra­tio­nal, ev­i­dence-in­formed dis­cus­sion about what a more progressive drug pol­icy would ac­tu­ally look like,” Etches said in a key­note panel Tues­day on the opioid cri­sis.

Univer­sity of Toronto tox­i­col­o­gist Dr. David Ju­urlink told con­fer­ence at­ten­dees that it isn’t use­ful to look at the cur­rent opioid cri­sis through a moral or crim­i­nal lens.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be ar­rest­ing peo­ple for a be­hav­iour that’s pri­mar­ily a health is­sue,” Ju­urlink said. “And if we all agree that ar­rest­ing peo­ple for us­ing drugs is not some­thing that is in any­one’s best in­ter­est, maybe we can just change the rules a lit­tle bit.”

Speak­ing to re­porters Mon­day af­ter she ad­dressed the con­fer­ence, NDP as­so­ciate health min­is­ter Brandy Payne said the gov­ern­ment had no po­si­tion on drug de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion but sug­gested that “when we’re deal­ing with an opioid cri­sis and a type of emer­gency that we’ve never seen be­fore … it’s im­por­tant to ex­am­ine all of the dif­fer­ent op­tions.”

That re­mark prompted fury from the Op­po­si­tion United Con­ser­va­tive Party in the Al­berta leg­is­la­ture Tues­day, with Cal­gary-west MLA Mike Ellis call­ing it a “grossly ir­re­spon­si­ble mes­sage.”

“This is out­ra­geous … now is not the time to spec­u­late about mak­ing these poi­sons le­gal,” he said in ques­tion pe­riod.

Payne noted there are no plans for de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion and the is­sue is a fed­eral re­spon­si­bil­ity in any case.

But she re­it­er­ated the pub­lic health emer­gency around opi­oids re­quires a dif­fer­ent re­sponse than has been seen in the past.

“Sub­stance abuse is a med­i­cal con­di­tion that re­quires a health-care re­sponse, un­like the ‘war on drugs’ that has failed,” said Payne.

Tues­day, Etches told con­fer­ence at­ten­dees that the cri­sis will con­tinue so long as peo­ple con­tinue tak­ing il­licit opi­oids such as fen­tanyl and car­fen­tanil.

In Al­berta, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 12, 2017, there were 315 deaths re­lated to the opi­oids fen­tanyl and car­fen­tanil, com­pared with 199 in the same pe­riod a year ear­lier.

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